Uruguayans vote on security reform in general election

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Montevideo (AFP)

Polls opened in Uruguay on Sunday with voters electing a successor to leftist President Tabare Vazquez and deciding on constitutional reforms including the establishment of a military police force.

Uruguayans will also be electing all 99 deputies and 30 senators in the Congress.

The vote comes on the same day as a general election in Argentina and against a backdrop of regional strife following massive street protests in Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia, the latter over alleged electoral fraud.

Daniel Martinez, the candidate for Vazquez's ruling Broad Front coalition turned up to vote in the upmarket Pocitos area of the capital Montevideo just after 11:00 am.

He was met by a swarm of local media and a handful of supporters chanting their favorite slogan about him: "Martinez, Martinez, is bald."

"It's been an enjoyable campaign, very cool," a smiling Martinez told reporters. "Let the people decide. There's a party in the streets."

Uruguay has long been considered a bastion of peace and stability in an often turbulent region but security has been declining, with a sharp rise in some violent crimes reported last year.

In 2018, South America's second-smallest country registered a record 414 murders, up 45 percent on the year before.

The alarming hike fueled a debate over proposed constitutional changes meant to improve security.

Those include the creation of a military National Guard, the establishment of life terms for the most serious offenses -- 32 years is the current maximum -- and authorizing police to conduct nighttime raids on the homes of suspected drug dealers.

The vote is expected to be tight, polls opened at 8:00 am (1100 GMT) and close at 7:30 pm.

- 'Robbed and destroyed' -

Security has been a major issue as the governing Broad Front seeks a fourth consecutive term.

In power since 2005, the Front faces a tough test, with voters angered by a stagnant economy, inflation of 7.5 percent and a nine percent unemployment rate.

Martinez led a recent poll with 40 percent.

That would not be enough for the former Montevideo mayor to avoid a run-off on November 24, though.

Former senator Luis Lacalle Pou, 46, of the center-right National Party was polling 28 percent, but in an eventual run-off he would likely win backing from historic rivals the Colorado Party, whose candidate is the economist Ernesto Talvi.

Daniel Segal, a 65-year-old businessman, voted in the same polling station as Martinez but said the time has come for change and ticked Talvi's box.

"He's the candidate with the most knowledge, with the highest level. Here, these people (the Broad Front) robbed us and destroyed the country."

Martinez had his supporters at the polling station, too.

"I have a conscience, a memory, ethic, moral and human values: that's why I'm voting for the Broad Front," said Valentin Puntigliano, 18, a journalist student.

"The things the Front have said haven't all helped me directly, but they've done many good things for the rest of the population that is suffering the most," said mother-of-two Lucia Ricci, 34, who works at Montevideo's town hall.

- Open 2nd round -

Running fourth in the polls was new right-wing party Open Cabildo, headed by former army commander-in-chief Guido Manini Rios.

He too could join a second round alliance against the Front, which commanded an absolute majority in the last three elections.

But this time "the second round is completely open," said political scientist Eduardo Bottinelli.

The Broad Front is a coalition of leftist movements that in 2005 broke a near monopoly on the presidency shared by the National and Colorado parties since 1830, two years after Uruguayan independence.

Vazquez, the Front's first president, was succeeded by former left-wing guerrilla Jose Mujica, who became a cult figure known as "the world's poorest president" -- he gave away most of his salary and drove an aging Volkswagen Beetle.

Vazquez cannot run for a second consecutive term.

The next president will take office on March 1, 2020.